This is my favourite meal and has been since I was three – the precocious (and pretentious, no doubt) answer to my friends’ parents’ question as to my favourite food. Apart from the fact that there really isn’t anything fancy about it, it’s crazily simple to make. Despite being pastry-based and with a molten bed of mozzarella, it is very light, and perfect for a gathering.
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We were plunged into the depths of the most labyrinthine of Moroccan souks with a texturally titillating starter of spiced chickpeas, roast Chantenay carrots flecked with crunchy pomegranate gems and creamy curd. It was not a long journey thence to the Welsh influenced Moroccan tagine, a sublime encounter with meat (possibly reared by one of the dinner guests himself) rendered almost molten after a three hour simmer.
Then, tossed on the tides of wine dark seas, we were carried away. We hugged the North African coast for as long as we could, before migrating across the undulating hills and majestic mountains to Southern Italy for a Marsala-imbued tiramisu. The brawn (in the muscular sense, not gelatinous pig's head) evident in the hand- whipped mascarpone elevated the dish further - quite unreplicable by any kitchen machinery. The plank of cheeses that had, tantalisingly, been perfuming the room, was brought before us, where the Mont D'Or led to much fantasising about entire rooms plastered with its moreish viscosity.
It is a great shame that the refried beans from the last visit failed to make an appearance. I can only assume that this was a conscious decision in order to allow a full coverage of fur to develop before extricating them from the fridge for medicinal use or a kimchi style delicacy.
Each guest launched him/herself into a dulcet kazoo cacophony. Renditions of Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl and Amy Winehouse’s Rehab were boldly modernised and subtly nuanced. Unfortunately, mastering the kazoo did not come as naturally to some as to others, and attempts to challenge the traditional method of kazooing included pursing one’s lips in flautist style, blowing from the other end, and, from one unlikely crystal meth abuser, filling the hollow with water in bong style.
Post dinner, we journeyed further north and, interestingly, back in time to the Iron Age, where the Hootenanny, famed for its reggae and hip hop nights, was facing a hairy invasion of retired Celtic warriors. In a show of true masculinity, clothing was scarce and moobs were on full show, quivering brawnily (the gelatinous pig’s head kind, not the muscular) along to the stirring beats of the three competing drummers. Caught in their own time loop, and not ashamed to recognise they were on to a good thing, they singled out the crowd's favourite 12 minute song and played it on repeat for the entire evening.
The journey ended here for the adventurers to rest and recover before the next leg of the journey, even further north.
NB: Photos are for visual stimulation only and are in no way related to the feast.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
I know, despite my family's secularity, that, traditionally, people rush to inspect their suspended stockings bursting with treats. I check my socks before I slip them on for the morning walk - the closest I’ll get to that is a scorpion, most likely dead around this time of year, but you can never be sure.
Breakfast: a succulent amalgam of a hand-torn chunk of last night's panettone, a dried fig, a boiled egg I hadn't managed to eat the day before, a savoiardi biscuit (or two - they comprise egg, sugar and a touch of flour, but mainly air, so one clearly isn't going to hit the mark), and a palmful of my brother's Krave cereal. This package claims to be a kind of roulette, where you never know whether you'll be hit by the flavour of caramel or hazelnut or milk or white chocolate. But each nugget of Krave tastes universally like the same sweet chemicals. I wash all this down with a swig of lemon soda.
Apparently, the most shocking thing is that we don’t have a tree. Enough wildlife manages to creep its way indoors without our having to rip up part of the countryside and insert it in the living room: two summers ago there was a gorgeous infestation of gem-like bugs that clustered against window panes. The ribbons of evergreen Cyprus trees that twist round the patchwork hillsides is the closest we get, I suppose.
It takes a couple of hours after shouting ‘it’s time to go’ before everyone assembles by the car. In a twist of fate sharply influenced by my mother’s taste, we all seem to be wearing navy pea coats this year. The words ‘Christmas’ and ‘jumper’ do not dare fall into the same sentence.
Being in the car doesn't actually guarantee that we’re going to move. First on the agenda is an argument, the rules for which are 1) it has to be founded on minute pedantry, 2) someone has to get out of the car (or at least threaten to do so) in order to flounce and revel in the argument that he/she has set in motion, and 3) shouting levels have to rise above 80 decibels.
Before we can reach our lunch destination we have to endure the downside of being immersed in the majestic, rolling Tuscan countryside. It is a requirement that each passenger feels on the point of throwing up. The car twists around hair pin bends, cliff side meanders until finally we reach a little town, and the place where the oldest human settlements of central Italy were discovered, dating back to neo-Paleolithic times, only 80,000 or so years before Jesus was born.
The square around which the town is built is aglow with winter sun, and empty apart from the bench where a squad of oldies tend to gather (but not speak). Christmas has managed to invade, but in a rather awkward fashion with snowmen made out of plastic cups jarring with the baked yellow ochre of the traditional farmacia and chapel. The combined scent of cheese, blood & boar bristle wafts across the square from the local macelleria.
Vincenzo, who bears a semblance to Mario (from Mario Kart), stands in front of his restaurant toward the back of the square. Over his belly plumped with years of his own tagliatelle all'aglione - a mark of his own kitchen excellence - a stained apron is stretched taut. He beams, and booms: “Buon Natale”.
No menus for us. Instead we let Alessio reel off the daily selection despite the fact it is a very close variation of that of the day before, and the day before that, and that of summer fifteen years ago when we first stumbled upon “Da Vincenzo”.
Bruschetta al pomodoro - nothing like the weak imitations found in the UK, the tomatoes are plump, and bleed their tangy and garlic infused juices into the unsalted bread. And, of course, all is doused in October’s verdant olive oil. By the time we leave, our joints are more than lubricated, and squeak-free.
The food is simple, and all the better for it. This is a cuisine without pretence, with no picky squiggles of sauces or cream-laden pastes. It is food that needs no justification.
Pici all’aglione - the hand-rolled, worm-like pasta which is a local delicacy, and perhaps what influenced Dahl's The Twits.
Zucchini alla griglia – simple, yet not to be underestimated - almost peppery in their charred perfection.
Ribollita - the twice cooked soup, at the heart of which sits a sponge of soup-saturated unsalted bread.
Filetto di manzo – tender beef, crisp on the exterior and molten in the middle.
Patate aroste - whose name is a thin disguise for the fact that they are simply media to bear oil, and all the better for it.
No dessert, no Christmas pudding, no pies, no chocolates, no candy canes, no crackers, no turkey, no stuffing. Welcome to the anti-Christmas.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
Biscotti, or cantucci, as they are known in Tuscany are crunchy and chewy slivers of twice baked and ridiculously moreish, Italian biscuits traditionally containing almonds, and often an abundance of dried fruit. They are obligatorily dipped into an immodestly full glass of Vin Santo (Italian sweet wine) and held there until the majority of the wine has been absorbed by the biscuit and there’s every chance it will land in one’s lap before it reaches one’s ready and waiting mouth.
Unfortunately, biscotti are endangered in Britain. Their reputation is marred by the imitation biscotti that have taken up residence in the majority of common coffee chains.
These poor copies of the true Italian post-prandial biscuit are so dry that they react like silica gel to one’s mouth, so stale that you may need to sacrifice a tooth to consume them.
For this pleasure the coffee chains also charge a trillion percent mark-up on what are the easiest and most inexpensive biscuits to make. Also, they’re often sold individually – who stops at just one?
This recipe is very versatile. I love strong flavours, and so I paired ginger with orange to give the biscuits a tang, and added the toasted hazelnuts for slight smokiness. However, these ingredients can be substituted with any dried fruit and nut of your choice, or indeed left plain. Use 200g of the dried fruit, 250g of the nut of your choice and, in place of the orange & ginger syrups, sub in an extra 2 tbsp honey.
For the biscuit
500g plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
3 eggs + 1 egg white + 1 egg yolk for later
2 tsp vanilla essence
3 tsp curaçao (triple sec)
250g roasted hazelnuts crushed into halves or slightly smaller pieces
2 tbsp honey
Zest of 1 orange
2 trays lined with baking parchment
For the candied oranges
1 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
For the candied ginger – or 140g store bought
200g ginger peeled and slices into 1/8 inch disks
4 cups of water
Candied ginger method
- Place sliced and peeled ginger in shallow pan with water and bring to boil. Allow to simmer with the lid on for 25 minutes
- Drain the ginger saving 1 cup of liquid and pour in sugar. Bring to medium heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to simmer for about 15 minutes until the liquid becomes syrupy and the ginger is translucent.
- Place sieve over a bowl and pour the mixture over to drain off the syrup. Reserve both elements for later use.
Candied orange peel method
- Slice the peel off the oranges with a knife in thick strips, cutting close to the flesh. Cut the peel into thin 0.5 cm strips and those to roughly 2cm lengths.
- Place chopped orange peel, sugar and water in pan and bring to boil. Reduce to medium heat and allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the liquid is mostly evaporated and syrupy and the oranges are translucent and lacking the sourness of their fresh state.
- Preheat oven to 180C. Mix all the dry ingredients together with the toasted hazelnuts in a large bowl.
- In a separate bowl separate one egg and place the yolk aside for later use. Mix together the 3 whole eggs, the egg white of one egg and the other liquid ingredients with the candied orange peel (along with it syrup) and the drained pieces of ginger along with 2 tbsp of the ginger syrup.
- Pour liquid mixture into the dry and stir until combined in a stiff dough.
- Sprinkle a wooden board with flour and spoon 1/6 of the mixture onto it. Coat your hands in flour and roll the dough out into a 5 cm wide log. Place on tray. Repeat with rest of mixture, leaving a large at least 10cm distance between each piece since it will spread whilst cooking.
- Bake for 20 minutes or until deep golden brown. With knife at the ready, take them out and slice diagonally into 3 cm widths and turn them so they’re cut side up. Turn off the oven and place these back in to dry out for another 10 minutes. Or just leave them in until ready to serve.
In MasterChef Australia (I’m not a fan of the British version) risotto is known as the “death dish”. The judges groan whenever a contestant confesses that he/she will be serving it. And quite rightly so, as the results are invariably sludgy, glutinous, crunchy, solid, watery, bland, or resembling something a woman in Ancient Rome might have used as a face pack.
It is often also the go-to dish for restaurants under pressure to include a vegetarian dish in their repertoire, and this is often disappointing, too, for two reasons:
1.) All too often it becomes a stodgy double cream and rice porridge. In a traditional risotto recipe there is no cream – the creaminess is achieved through breaking down the starch by stirring the grains with a good quality stock. And no, this isn’t difficult at all. Don’t believe the hype surrounding the pitfalls; it is really a very simple dish to perfect.
2.) In some unwritten chef rulebook there exists the heinous concept that risotto can only be married to butternut squash or mushrooms. It’s not that I dislike either of these, but that I’m just crying out for some more original combination.
Risotto doesn’t have to be made with rice either. I use spelt (or farro) instead for numerous reasons: it has a lower GI, has a nuttier flavour, and has a more interesting texture. It’s also a hundred times easier to cook well. Obviously, it isn’t strictly ‘risotto’, but the idea is similar.
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter (15g)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
25g (about 8 cloves) garlic, crushed
2 tbsp sundried tomato paste
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp thyme (fresh or dried)
½ tsp chilli flakes
Grated zest of ½ lemon
¾ tsp smoked paprika
250g pearled spelt (or farro)
750ml boiling water
3 tsp vegetable stock
80g toasted pine nuts
1 tsp lemon juice
Handful of coriander, to serve
- In a large pot, melt together the butter and oil. Add in the finely chopped onions and garlic, and cook over medium/high heat until the onions are soft and translucent.
- Stir in the sundried tomato paste, sugar, balsamic vinegar, thyme, chilli flakes, lemon zest, smoked paprika and a pinch of salt. Cook ingredients together for a couple of minutes.
- In a bowl, dissolve the stock in the boiling water, then pour roughly 250ml of this, together with the passata and spelt into the pot, and stir together on a medium heat.
- Stir every now then to prevent the spelt from sticking, and add the rest of the water, a ladleful at a time, at roughly 10 minute intervals.
- After 40-50 minutes, remove from the heat, stir in toasted pine nuts and lemon juice and season according to taste. The spelt grains should be soft all the way through with no chalkiness, and with some texture remaining. Most of the water should have been absorbed or evaporated so the consistency is thicker than that of a soup, without being solid, and not thin enough to pour.
- To serve, crumble the feta over the top and scatter with coriander.